Monday, October 12, 2015

Startups: Wanna Change the World? Think Local Gov.

After a few years' hiatus I've returned to local government. It's better than I remember it being and there's so much I love about it. What do I love most? The potential for technology (done right) to make a massive impact on my own community. I get to make a difference every single day.

What do I like least? Calls from vendors. A constant, soul-sapping, mind-numbing, dizzying barrage of calls from people who have a solution to so many problems we never had. But I digress...

I was reading a tweet +Matt Beran threw out there this morning about using Slack to make a wiki for documentation. A pretty nifty way to document and it uses some cool tools that don't cost a lot to get into. 

So I put a little thought into how I'd use Slack in my new job and got just a little bit excited. The little attorney voice in my head asked, "but what about retention?" Dang, there's the catch. To get retention and discovery we'd need to have paid accounts. Obviously there's no opposition to paying for a good tool but it can be a large barrier to entry for us. Where many companies could start with a free account and grow acceptance until it hit a critical mass that's not at always possible in local government. We're required to be discoverable and archived in so many things we do...by law.

That's the problem with many popular platforms. The features required for local levels of government are always priced at enterprise level. There's not a whole lot of cities, municipalities, townships, counties, schools, etc that don't have budget problems. Funds are tight almost everywhere plus we're often talking about organizations that are 250 employees or fewer with IT staff of one or two if any at all. Requirements make them need the 1000 employee version features but the technical maturity level is more like an organization at 30 or fewer employees.

If your startup wants to have a massive impact on local government start designing your products and pricing with them in mind. Create them the way you'd like to see government run - open, accessible, documented. Then find a way to make them easily adopted by shops that are cash-strapped and understaffed since that tends to describe almost every local government shop. If you can prove the value and demonstrate the effectiveness you'll find success in getting elected officials to find room in budget for your product.

Yes, Slack has a separate TOS for government agencies. Yes, we could use the service for free (it'd be a real challenge when that first FOIA request was received or needed to preserve info for historical purposes). Yes, it's foolish to complain about free stuff. I'm just saying, with a little strategy and vision, your startup really could change the world AND make money instead of just changing the business world.

Local government is an interesting thing. You typically don't think about it until you pay your taxes or a service impacts you: police, fire, building inspections, mowing the park, whatever. When a service affects you, though, it can be huge. It's the governmental sector that tends to have the most interaction and closest relationship with citizens. It's also the sector that has the most potential for change.